October 27, 2016

The Barnes Museum: More Is Most Definitely Less, IMHO

I put my current feeling of revived energy and spirit to a real test this past Wednesday. With lots of trepidation, I had signed up for a one-day chartered bus excursion to Philadelphia to see the Barnes Museum, which opened a few years ago to house the incredible art collection owned by the Barnes foundation. 

The trip was sponsored by our neighborhood Palisades Village and several other "villages" in Northwest Washington. These villages are found in urban communities throughout the U.S. where older residents band together to help elderly neighbors "age in place."

My pal Marianne picked me up at 8:45am. We drove to the parking lot for DC's Lord & Taylor store where we boarded our bus for the three-hour drive to the museum in Philadelphia. 

We spent almost five hours at the museum. I got home about 9:30pm, pretty exhausted... but pleased I'd gotten through the long day without any real trouble.

Background on the Barnes Collection

The Barnes Foundation was begun in 1922 by Albert Barnes, a wealthy scientist who collected what is now considered an incomparable collection of post-impressionist and modernist art. 

Valued at about $25 billion, the collection includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modiglianis, and seven van Goghs. Barnes collected this European art before it was popular in America, and he collected the best of the best. With the help of educational philosopher John Dewey, Barnes founded the Barnes Foundation as an educational facility in Merion, PA, near Philadelphia. 

The Barnes collection was primarily used as an impressive teaching aid for students. The Foundation admitted a limited number of public visitors two days a week, but visitors were second-class citizens compared to the students.

Barnes protected his vision for the collection in his will. The art could not be sold, reproduced, loaned, or traveled. The school would continue. There were slight concessions to public visitation, resulting in attendance of about 60,000 per year.

Barnes designed every detail of his collection with personal care, grouping paintings to reflect and comment on one another, placing period furniture and wall ornaments near them, and filling walls with paintings close together.

He loved his collection, and he hated Philly's Main Line establishment and particularly the Museum of Art, which had scorned his collection in its early days. Barnes hired some Philadelphia lawyers and drew up an ironclad will endowing his foundation with funds to maintain the collection indefinitely where it was and how it was. He specified that the collection not go anywhere near the Philadelphia Museum of Art... but that's exactly where it is today.

Barnes died in a car accident in 1951 at age 79. Almost immediately, Philadelphia leaders clamored for the art to move to the city and be made more accessible to visitors.

It took decades, but the civic and cultural leaders eventually won a court ruling authorizing the movement of the collection to a new museum that opened in 2012. It was agreed that the artwork would be displayed exactly as Barnes had arranged it in his Merion museum.

The 2009 documentary The Art of the Steal traces the events that began in 1951 with Barnes' death and ended with the 2012 opening of the Barnes Museum. Robert Ebert concludes his review of the film by saying: 
​I​t is perfectly clear exactly what Barnes specified in his will. It was drawn up by the best legal minds. It is clear that what happened with the  collection was against his wishes. It is clear that the city fathers acted in obviation of those wishes, and were upheld in the Court of Appeals. What is finally clear: it doesn't matter a damn what your will says if you have $25 billion and politicians and the establishment want it.​
I'd known some of this story, but I'm glad the trip gave me an opportunity to learn more about it. I may try to watch the documentary.

Reflection​s on Touring the Barnes Museum

The nearly five hours I spent in the museum were interesting but exhausting. Thinking about it later, I realized I hadn't really enjoyed seeing the artwork because of the way it was displayed.

The layout that Barnes specified was designed for the education of art students, not the enjoyment of the general public. For me, seeing the $25 billion worth of art crammed into 22 small rooms made me uncomfortable.

The paintings were hung too close together and tied in with African sculpture, Pennsylvania German decorative arts, Native American textiles, metalwork, and more. Perhaps an art student over the course of a semester might learn some lessons from this presentation, but it for me it was too much.

Here's an example. One of the paintings I particularly liked was Picasso's "The Ascetic":

Here's how it was displayed, at right, in the Barnes Museum:

One of my favorite paintings in the National Gallery of Art is a similar study, titled "The Tragedy," from Picasso's blue period:

Here's how it is displayed at the NGA:

An Example of How Less Is More
I was going to babble on about a similar situation the Phillips Gallery in Washington faced when its collection of impressionist and modern art outgrew the confines of the Phillips mansion. But then I reminded myself of my "less is more" mantra. So I'll conclude with this example
of less is more.

I would gladly give up a dozen of the buxom Renoir nudes in the Bradford Museum for this one Renoir in the Phillips Gallery:

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